It was the Bebelo Reynoso and Kevin Molino show as Minnesota United brushed Sporting Kansas City aside to book a Western Conference Final date with the Seattle Sounders. Here are my takeaways.
Molino is the undisputed playoffs MVP
The first half of this game was one of the weirdest 3-0 games I’ve ever seen. It’s not that Minnesota didn’t deserve it, they did — it’s that Sporting had enough chances to put the game to bed long before the Loons got going. The first 25 minutes of this game left me wondering how on earth Minnesota were still in the game. And then Molino woke up and continued to make his case for MLS Playoffs MVP, and just like that, Minnesota punched their ticket to the Western Conference Final.
Molino is a player I’ve always liked but at times he has flattered to deceive. The talent is there, but he can be great one game and then anonymous the next. For one reason or another, he’s found a zone right now that very few athletes reach. He’s in a place where everything he tries is coming of, things that take years to perfect look effortless for him, and he is putting the ball in the back of the next with an efficiency that any fox in the box would be proud of.
He’s been the best player in the playoffs — bar none. Minnesota as a whole look incredibly deadly going forward and it’s not just Molino, it’s their entire attacking quartet of Robin Lod, Ethan Finlay, Reynoso and of course Molino. I absolutely love the way they get out on the break — they attack with pace and purpose and look like they have a clear plan for what they want to do. Sporting didn’t help themselves defensively, but this was more about how well Minnesota took their chances when they arrived.
The first goal was exceptional. The quick passing and off the ball movement was top notch as was the timing of both Molino’s run and the pass from the ever-impressive Reynoso. That was Adrian Heath’s team at their attacking best — fast, precise, purposeful and deadly.
Watch: Reynoso and Molino combine for first two Minnesota goals
The Reynoso-Molino combination is eerily similar to the Lodeiro-Morris one that has worked wonders for the Sounders. You can know what they want to do, but it’s very difficult, if not outright impossible to stop it when it’s in full flow. They are not quite at the level of the Sounders duo yet because those two have produced performances that have translated into silverware. But, given time, and the current trajectory they’re on, this is a duo that can dominate for a while.
They are the perfect pair because their skill sets complement each other so well. One likes to run off the ball and get in behind, while the other seemingly has eyes at the back of his head and can pick a pass through any defense. Again, very similar to the Sounders duo. Reynoso has been a revelation. I judge players based on how good they make those around them and he is top-notch when it comes to that. Molino is a similar player to what I was: good on the dribble, can go left or right, but he is more than just a winger — he is goal dangerous and also able to come inside and play-make at times. There aren’t many tandems I’d take over Molino and Reynoso right now, they are absolutely flying.
Midfield, defensive failings prove Sporting's undoing
There were more than a few Western Conference based MLS fans that were skeptical of how worthy Sporting were of the number one seed. They didn’t face Seattle, LAFC or Portland all season and so it was difficult to gauge exactly what their level was compared to some of the better teams in their conference.
Having said that, I liked most of what I saw from them this season but what ultimately cost them in this game, was their sub-par midfield performance. Illie Sanchez is a classy player and does a good job of dictating his team's tempo but he struggled to make his mark on this game, as did Gianluca Busio and Roger Espinoza. That Sporting engine room — where so many games are won and lost — chose the wrong time to put in a poor shift. Osvaldo Alonso — his best years may be behind him but there is no midfielder I’d rather have in a playoff run — gave Minnesota an authority in the middle of the park that prevented Sporting from exerting any kind of dominance.
Goals change games — obviously. Had Sporting scored the two or three goals they easily could have in the opening 25 minutes, we are having a very different discussion right now, but as it stands, they weren’t good enough defensively to overcome a poor offensive outing.
Immediately after their shootout victory against San Jose, I expressed my disbelief at how open they left the deadliest striker in league history inside the six-yard box with 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Once again, their defending left a lot to be desired as it was too easy for Molino to make a direct run through on goal for his opening goal. When you concede six goals in two home playoff games, you give yourself an almost insurmountable task and that’s how it played out for Sporting in the end.
It's Lodeiro vs. Reynoso in the Conference Final
In the most simplistic terms, this game will swing the way of whoever is more influential between Lodeiro and Reynoso. I am aware that this is a very basic and simple analysis that anyone with two good eyes can make, but sometimes football does come down to the most obvious thing.
The Sounders have great players all over the pitch but they live and die by what Lodeiro does. He’s proving to be the best signing in club history and his performance in big games is second to none. If you stop him, you cut off a lot of what Ruidiaz and Morris do because he’s their supplier.
Can Alonso turn back the clock and put in one of those masterful defensive efforts that he’s done so many times before in the very stadium this game will be played in? If he can be the Ozzie I’ve called the best holding mid to ever lace them up in our league, then Minnesota’s chances go way up as he is more than capable of shutting down Lodeiro. I cannot wait to see that matchup.
On the other side, it’s the same story for Reynoso: Can he exert his playmaking influence and pull Seattle’s defenders all over the pitch? He won’t be man-marked by any one player but the Sounders will need to try to limit him by committee. He provides such great service to Molino that you are almost killing two birds with one stone if you can keep him quiet.
To be clear, there will be many factors that determine the outcome, but I really feel that whichever team's playmaker is on song, will be the team that advances.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.